SHELBURNE – Shelburne native and Littleton resident Frederick “Don” Field surprised everyone 15 minutes before the scheduled 10 p.m. end of a three-hour public hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) Thursday, Nov. 17 when he withdrew his request for a license to build eight wind turbines on Mt. Massaemet.
“We will withdraw the application without prejudice and not take up any more of anyone’s time,” said Field, accompanied by his son and business partner John and Acton Engineering and Survey representative Mark Donohoe.
Instantly, almost everyone in the audience loudly clapped and cheered. Without further discussion, the ZBA voted to accept the offer, also “without prejudice,” meaning that Field could bring a proposal again to the table in future.
Field said after the meeting that he may reapply “if I get my ducks in a row.”
ZBA Chair Joe Palmeri reminded the audience at the start of the hearing that this may have been the first of many meetings within the hearing and said a decision would not be made until all details had been discussed, and even then, conditions could be stipulated if a special permit were to be granted.
The saga leading up to the hearing included preliminary details mentioned in the ZBA’s Aug. 4 meeting, an initial hearing date on Oct. 6 that was cancelled when it came to light that three town boards had not received the application in time to review it for the permissible 30 days, and ramped-up local attendance and an abundance of public comment concerning the project at subsequent regular Planning Board, Conservation Commission (ConCom) and ZBA meetings in the ensuing weeks.
The controversial proposal was to place eight 2.5-megawatt capacity turbines on a line running north to south on the easterly side of the stone fire tower along the mountain ridge 200 feet below the 1,595-foot ridge line on parcels of land owned by the Gould, Davenport and Dole families, as well as on 81 acres owned by Field.
In August, Field said the $40 million project would generate 52,500 megawatt-hours of electricity per year into the national grid, enough to power 6,000 homes, preventing 60,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced from the use of 1.17 million gallons of oil for the same electrical output.
Ashfield resident and Northampton lawyer Tom Lesser, representing many of those concerned about possible adverse effects of the proposed project noted several reasons why the ZBA should deny Field’s request on the spot.
“The real issue is that you don’t have a real application,” said Lesser. “You don’t have construction and road layouts or even where substations are going to be located. They are subdividing and recreating other people’s lots, changes which they should come forward with and letters from landowners need to be submitted. If you don’t want to wind up in land court, deny it now because this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Lesser gave as another reason to deny the license the amount of time spent to rehash the same details.
At one point, Donohoe was concerned that Mount Massaemet Windfarm, Inc., Field’s business name, did not have the $100,000 needed to make environmental studies, and literally compared their financial situation to the Occupy Wall Street protest statement, “We are the 99 percent.” The audience groaned in discontent.
A week before the meeting, Massachusetts Audubon Society, which owns land at the nearby High Ledges, called on the ZBA to conduct bird and other wildlife studies.
In a Nov. 8 letter Massachusetts Audubon Society public policy and government relations Director John Clarke “strongly recommend[ed]” the town obtain from the applicant a pre-construction bird and bat study “to evaluate potential impacts.” Other information recommended be obtained included delineation of any proposed work within 100 feet of all wetlands or streams and 200 feet from perennial rivers. Clarke added that the town should evaluate “any fragmentation effects the access roads and turbines may have on wildlife habitat and impacts the project may have to the conservation and recreational values of protected lands.”
“Each site and wind energy project is different,” wrote Clarke, “and there is insufficient existing information to merely predict effects of this project absent site-specific studies.”
Palmeri had the most difficulty with Donohoe and the Fields over a bylaw specifying a limit of one main structure per lot, considering that in the proposal, some lots had two or three wind turbines on them. Donohoe said that they could return to the ZBA after seeking approval from the Planning Board to resize and subdivide current lots into new ones that fit the structure limit criterion.
“You have to get through us first,” remonstrated Palmeri, followed by audience cheers.
He added that he didn’t believe any such new lots could abide by the 250-foot road frontage bylaw requirement.
ZBA Member Ted Merrill began the round of concerns at the meeting, saying that the proposed wind farm was an industrial installation, not a commercial one, which Palmeri countered with mention of a commercial electrical facility classification under the industrial use table of Shelburne’s bylaws.
ZBA Members John Taylor and Lowell Laporte suggested getting official definitions of industrial and commercial installations, which Donohoe said he and the Fields would look into.
Many in attendance, including Planning Board Chair Vincent Matthew Marchese, were dismayed at the lack of in-depth information from the Fields and Donohoe at the hearing. Palmeri said the ZBA could not approve a special license with an inadequate plan that was primarily just conceptual design.
Jan Voorhis of Buckland described the health effects of “wind turbine syndrome” from the low-grade sound and light “flicker effect” from turbines on human beings and animals. Falmouth, MA resident Neil Anderson attended the hearing to give a first-hand account of those health effects, including tinnitus, vertigo and depression, and said “energy conservation, not wind farm installation, is the way to go.”
Peter Joppe of Shelburne calculated all the setback distances in feet to adequately protect High Ledges from various disturbances, including power lines, saying there are too many safety zones that need to be fit there for the limited space available. Joppe gave the ZBA a packet with the name of a consultant who could do the needed environmental studies for “less than several thousand dollars.”
Kevin Delaney, who owns the communication tower on Mt. Massaemet, expressed concern regarding the possible effect wind turbines could have for the communication systems of his clients, Northeast Utilities and AT&T Wireless.
Catherine “Kiki” Smith, wife of Charles Cohn, whose property neighbors the proposed turbine site, was concerned about all of these issues, and how much Cooper Lane would be widened to allow trucks with turbine parts and equipment to access the site.
Not everyone in attendance saw the proposal as negative.
“Some people see the wind farm as a runaway train heading this way and so we try to tear up the rails, but the train has not yet been boarded,” said ConCom Chairman Norman Davenport, who recused himself from Commission meeting discussion about the project because his land was part of the proposed site.
“I am a fourth-generation farmer hoping that my children and their children can make a profit off the land,” Davenport said. “I entered into a contract with Field to see if the commercial electrical facility could work. I kept an open mind.”